ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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After nearly 5 years, Turkey to release Israeli caught smuggling khat — minister

Danny Aweke, under house arrest and banned from leaving, said to be deteriorating mentally, leading to diplomatic intervention on humanitarian grounds, Foreign Ministry says

Danny Aweke. (Courtesy)
Danny Aweke. (Courtesy)

An Israeli man imprisoned in Turkey for almost five years on a drug trafficking conviction is expected to return home in the coming days following high-level diplomatic efforts, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced Thursday evening.

Danny Aweke, 35, was arrested in 2019 on suspicion of smuggling khat leaves through Turkey and was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In recent months, his mental condition has deteriorated, prompting the personal intervention of Cohen and President Isaac Herzog, according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

“The warming relations between Israel and Turkey contributed greatly to the advancement of the matter toward its happy ending,” Cohen said in a Foreign Ministry statement. “I look forward to Danny returning to Israel and reuniting with his family after these difficult years.”

Aweke told local police that the dealers who convinced him to carry the khat told him that the leaves were legal. Though approved in Israel, khat is considered an illegal drug in many countries due to their mild narcotic effect.

Aweke served over three years in prison, including a transfer to another facility over harassment by Syrian and Iranian inmates who discovered that he was Israeli. He was released to house arrest and moved to a halfway house 18 months ago to ease prison overcrowding, but barred from leaving the country.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Cohen recently interceded on Aweke’s behalf by sending newly-appointed Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan a letter asking for his release on humanitarian grounds.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, February 14, 2023 (Presidency of the Republic of Turkiye)

The joint statement said that Herzog and Cohen made significant progress, leading Turkish authorities to agree to release Aweke this coming weekend.

“This is further proof of the supreme efforts the Foreign Ministry makes to help Israeli citizens,” Cohen said. “This is a sensitive humanitarian case, and I thank President Isaac Herzog for the joint work along with my friend, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan, for the understanding of the urgent need to advance Danny Aweke’s release.”

While Cohen touted his own efforts in securing Aweke’s release, the Ynet news site said it was a local law firm hired by an American Jewish philanthropist who uncovered a loophole in the Turkish legal code that allowed for the Israeli to be expelled from the country instead of serving the remainder of his sentence there.

There was no immediate confirmation from Turkish authorities of Aweke’s impending release.

After several years of tension between the two countries, relations between Turkey and Israel have improved over the past year, partially thanks to diplomatic channels opened by Herzog to secure the release of other Israelis imprisoned by Ankara. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been set to visit Ankara in July, in what would be the first visit by an Israeli premier since 2006, but had to push off the trip due to health issues.

In March 2022, Herzog met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and then-prime minister Yair Lapid met with Erdogan in New York a year ago.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak to the media after their talks, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Relations were strained in 2010 after an Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship, part of a blockade-busting flotilla, that left dead 10 Turkish activists who attacked IDF soldiers aboard the ship.

Ties later saw a moderate improvement, but both countries withdrew their ambassadors in 2018 after Erdogan leveled charges of “state terrorism” and “genocide” at Israel when dozens of Palestinians were killed in Gaza rioting on May 14 of that year, the day then-US president Donald Trump controversially moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In 2021, an Israeli couple was detained for a week by Turkish authorities on suspicion of espionage after having photographed the residence of Erdogan in Istanbul. The couple was released following extensive diplomatic efforts by Herzog and Lapid, who was foreign minister at the time.

Illustrative: Sellers attend to customers in a street market in Eminonu commercial district in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 16, 2023. (AP/Francisco Seco, File)

Last week, an Israeli man was reportedly arrested in Turkey after airport officials in Antalya found an ornamental bell in his luggage that they claimed was an ancient artifact.

The man, a resident of Acre, claims that the item is a mass-produced product that he bought at a local market for $100, presenting a receipt. According to Hebrew media reports, Turkish authorities have rebuffed all Israeli attempts to intervene in the case and plan to pursue smuggling charges.

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